Located in a dimly lit hallway in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, “The Old Ball Game” is small in size but epic in scope. The exhibition, comprised mostly of small vintage baseball cards, helps visitors gain perspective on nearly a century of baseball in the city of New York.
At first glance, the exhibit may appear unimpressive. The framed cards, most of them gifts from collector Jefferson R. Burdick, are arranged chronologically and by set, leaving patrons to move slowly down the corridor as they relive the old days of New York baseball. A porcelain sculpture of a catcher by Ott and Brewer and the George Luks painting “Boy with Baseball” are displayed nearby, placing the cards in the contemporaneous context of 19th century art.
While no one will mistake the small rectangles of cardboard for Caravaggio originals, the cards are impactful in the history that they hold. The exhibition evokes memories of a different time, when the Yankees shared the city with a pair of National League teams: the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Together, these three teams dominated the scene for more than 50 years, combining for 46 pennants between 1905 and 1957, the year the Giants and Dodgers moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. The exhibit displays portraits of many of the top stars from this Golden Age, including Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Duke Snider.
However, as much as the cards tell about the history of baseball, they also show the evolution of American culture during the first half of the 20th century. Starting with the 1890s cohort, patrons can trace the changes in style throughout the decades — the soup strainers and pillbox caps of the 19th century are quickly replaced by clean-shaven faces and updated designs. Significant changes in printing can also be seen, with the earliest sketches hardly resembling the sleek photography of later epochs.
Even more significantly, some of the cards from the exhibit’s later decades tell the story of a rapidly changing baseball — and, indeed, American — landscape. A card featuring Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in the Major Leagues, is prominently displayed, while successors like Don Newcombe, Monte Irvin and Willie Mays hang close by. A small cluster of Mets cards are located just a few frames down, sucking the viewer headfirst into baseball’s expansion era.
The final frame features hairy Yankees from the 1970s like Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Catfish Hunter. Somewhat improbably, they look an awful lot like some of the mustachioed gents featured on the cards from the late 1800s. While this has more to do with shifting style trends than anything else, it underscores an important theme of our national pastime: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even after almost a hundred years of modern baseball, it’s still 90 feet to first base.
The fact that this small exhibition can communicate so much is testament to the enduring power and importance of baseball. If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, consider buying some peanuts and Cracker Jack and taking yourself out to “The Old Ball Game.”